By Jay Mullen
That was the word Kathleen Brooks repeated when talking about the recent passing of her brother James P. Brooks, Jr., who succumbed to injuries sustained from responding to a mutual aid structure fire in Dresden. He passed away on Sept. 18.
When the news of his passing broke people from Whitehall, local surrounding communities and beyond started posting to Facebook sending their thoughts and prayers to the Brooks family.
Even the flags at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Maryland were at half-staff.
“I’m so proud of who my brother was,” Kathleen said as she cried. “I’m beyond words.”
James, who everyone knew as Jim, passed away in his sister’s home in Gansevoort. He went through a long process to make it home in the first place.
Kathleen, along with her father, her son and Jim were planning a fishing trip on May 2. Kathleen called Jim at around 8:30 a.m. to clarify what time and where they would be meeting up.
Jim answered his phone from a hospital in Rutland, Vermont.
“That is really where everything began,” Kathleen said.
She said that the hardest part of it all was that it was happening in the first place. But the emergence of COVID-19 certainly didn’t help.
Jim entered the UVM Medical Center on May 2 and remained there until June 23. From there he was transferred to Sunnyview Rehabilitation Center in Schenectady where he stayed until July 31.
Kathleen was only able to see her brother after he was transferred from UVM. The family was not able to see him throughout his stay in Burlington.
She said that it was really hard on her mother.
“For my mother that was just a horrible struggle not to be able to be by his side and hold his hand,” Kathleen said. “It was the same for all of us, but especially for my mom.”
Jim wasn’t just the second assistant fire chief with the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company. He did a lot of things around the community.
His uncle, Jim Lafayette, has been very active with the American Legion in Whitehall. He has been running the Toys for Tots program, which he said the fire company has always been very helpful with.
“For the last few years Jimmy has been helping me with that,” Lafayette said. “I’m gonna miss him if I do it again.”
Jim was known as a very selfless person. He was always there for anyone and everyone no matter what they needed help with.
The community knew they could count on him.
Kristy Putorti graduated with Jim from Whitehall in 1995. She said that she couldn’t recall a community event that Jim wasn’t a part of in one way or another.
“From the rescue squad to the fire company he was always the go-to guy,” Putorti said.
She thought back to when she was a booster club parent. They would run a coin drop every year, and whenever she needed anything there was one person she would call.
“When I needed anything for the road, like cones and the little coats that you wear, I went to (Jim),” she said. “He was always there to help…He was always willing to help no matter what the cause was.”
Jim was always doing whatever he could to help the community, and he never complained about it to anyone.
He would always shine a light on anyone he would help out.
“There was always a smile on his face, and you could tell that he loved what he did. It just came so natural to him to volunteer, to give back. I think some people are just born with that,” Putorti said.
Kathleen described her brother’s personality as dynamic. Everyone seemed drawn to him.
This includes people of all ages.
Rachel McNamara, a member of the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company, has been working at the fire house since she was pregnant with her three-year-old son Carter.
She said that Carter has essentially grown up at the fire house. McNamara said that her son was always drawn to Jim.
He even had a special name for the fire house.
“Carter asked if the fire house was Jim’s house. So we all just kind of went with it and said, ‘yup, this is Jim’s house,’” McNamara said.
One thing that she is going to miss more than anything is the kayaking trips that Jim would put together.
“I’m definitely going to miss our kayaking trips down the Mettowee,” she said.
Multiple times during every summer she recalled Jim planning these big kayaking trips. She said there would be anywhere from 15 to 26 kayaks on these trips.
Jim was the one that put them all together.
Jim’s younger cousin and fire chief of the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company, Bryan Brooks, said the support from the local communities and elsewhere has been incredible. He said that he is honored that people recognize Jim’s selflessness.
“Jim had a good soul,” Bryan said. “He put others before himself right up until his final alarm.”
On Saturday, Sept. 26, Jim was laid to rest and fire companies from surrounding areas came to celebrate his life and mourn his passing.
As the procession began from the fire house to Our Lady of Hope Church on Wheeler Avenue, members from multiple fire companies stood and saluted.
Kelley Hall said it was her first time at a funeral for a fallen firefighter. She applauded the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company for its work at making the day a beautiful one, as well as the surrounding fire companies for coming out and showing their support.
“I don’t think I have ever seen anything so beautiful in my life, yet so sad,” Hall said.
Jim’s best friend of almost 35 years, Jeff Rice, is a member of the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company, and said that there were so many memories with Jim that he will cherish for the rest of his life.
He said that Jim had some unfinished business with himself and the Brooks family. Kathleen said that they began to grow even closer during the 48 days he was home prior to his passing.
“That’s why he came back for a little while,” Rice said.
Kathleen said that during her brother’s stay with her in Gansevoort they had many conversations that they had never been able to have. They were able to learn so much more about one another.
“We learned so much more about him than we ever even knew,” she said.
Kathleen and Rice were sitting together when talking about the life of Jim. They shared a few laughs about his sense of humor and some of the fun times they had been through together.
But Rice wouldn’t be where he is today if it wasn’t for his best friend.
“If it wasn’t for Jim I wouldn’t be in the fire service,” he said. “He finally got me in there after I straightened my life out, and I’m grateful for that.”